ASMFC on Delawares Horseshoe crab and american eel
Horseshoe crab numbers looking bleak
Report says Delaware Bay population will need 4 to 15 years to recover
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 11/1/05
Kirk Moore Staff writer
GALLOWAY ? The horseshoe crab population in Delaware Bay may be more depleted than previously thought, and will take between four and 15 years to recover to a level that can sustain commercial crab harvests, according to a forthcoming report by Virginia scientists.
Environmental groups are certain to cite the paper produced by Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University as they press for a sweeping moratorium on the taking of crabs for fishing bait, a measure those advocates say is needed to save migrating shorebirds that feed on crab eggs. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is holding its annual meeting here this week and horseshoe crab issues are on the agenda for today.
The report "was supposed to be considered by the horseshoe crab board, but it got yanked, so there seems to be some pressure to keep it off the agenda," said Tim Dillingham of the American Littoral Society, one of several groups seeking a wider moratorium.
The study is one of three horseshoe crab-related papers recently received by the Atlantic states commission, but they will not be considered this week because they haven't yet been reviewed by the commission's own technical experts, said Bruce Freeman, a scientist with the state Division of Fish and Wildlife.
While the Virginia Tech results suggest the horseshoe crab population is depressed, other survey and tagging studies sponsored by the U.S. Geological Survey show the population may be slowly increasing, said Freeman, who often represents New Jersey on the commission's panels. One survey using a trawl net in the bay is also finding more juvenile crabs, another sign the population may be rebounding, Freeman said.
New Jersey and Delaware jointly limit the Delaware Bay crab harvest to 300,000 and ban crab gathering during five weeks in spring, when shorebirds arrive to rest and feed en route to Arctic nesting grounds.
The study by Michelle L. Davis, James Berkson and Marcella Kelly of Virginia Tech used a mathematical modeling technique, called surplus population models, to assess the Delaware Bay crab population.
Frozen, cut-up crabs are used as bait for eel and whelks, a type of marine snail that fishermen also call conch. The commercial catch peaked in 1998 at about 2 million crabs and has declined in recent years after the Atlantic states commission imposed quotas and fishermen began using bait-saving devices such as mesh bags inside their traps.
There's sharp disputes over how much further cutbacks in the bait fishery could help the shorebirds, especially the red knot, a species that bird experts say has shown steep population declines since the fishery peaked in the 1990s.
State officials have ratcheted down season and catch limits since the 1990s. Recently Carl Shuster, a Virginia-based scientist and national authority on horseshoe crabs, has written that shorebird conservationists can't hope to do much more on the horseshoe crab until the crabs recover at their own pace.
Shorebird advocates contend the red knot is in such dire straits that a year-round crabbing moratorium is warranted. Earlier this year, several environmental groups submitted a petition to the Department of the Interior asking that the red knot be protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Today's arguments over the demand for a full ban on crabbing obscure how far the states have come since the 1990s, Freeman said.
"We've made big reductions. We've gone from an (estimated) 3 million crab harvest to 600,000 coastwide," he said.
The commissioners approved a draft amendment to the American eel management plan that would require its member states to institute a system to track how many eels are harvested by any method, whether for personal use as bait, to sell to bait shops, or for food.
The decision, based on a recommendation of the American eel technical committee, was to answer concerns about a lack of information about how many eels are being harvested, primarily by recreational anglers, but also because of a lack of information on just how many eels exist.
Though there were other options ? including instituting closed seasons, reducing the possession limit from the current level of 50 eels per person or setting minimum or maximum sizes ? the commissioners held off, choosing to wait until the stock assessment on eels is released in February.
The striped bass committee meeting had good news for anglers, for now, at least, as the technical committee reported stripers are not overfished.